The State

The State

Project scope

The State is the master problem of the modern era, and in the words of Clausewitz, the most important phenomenon in history.

In general, the State is not well understood. At worst, it is reduced to an amalgam of institutions, which in their connections and coordination constitute what people often think of as “the state.” The relationship of that “state” to “the government” is also an obscuring factor. Thus we have the concept of the head of state, and generally think of the government as the helmsmen of the state at any particular time. While political discourse can be conducted with such concepts, and indeed such concepts can be used to highlight matters of importance, this is not our orientation to the concept or historical phenomenon.

Rather, we understand the State as a far longer historical phenomenon, and one that is greatly removed from — if connected to — not merely the government, but even government in general. Perhaps the first thing Michel Foucault sought to correct in political thought is the reduction of political life to “the government.” His question was government itself. Similarly, politics in society cannot be represented in whole in political parties. Existing institutions, whether the prison or the asylum, are also fields of politics, containing political meaning. The traditional field of “political life,” in this sense, exists below other structures (including capitalism, the matrix of societal institutions, the military or strategic horizon, and so on). Above are wider vistas yet: the technical horizon of the organization of men and things; concepts of what is human and what is animal; ideological systems, including religion and good and evil, etc. The State is what encompasses everything, including all power relations and institutions, transecting all while not being reducible to the sum of all.

States are centres of gravity around which power relations coalesce. The State has a life of its own, and is largely unrelated to human concerns. As vast physical and material forces, States also exist within the field of their like, which again is not reducible to traditional international relations or discourse. Indications of the nature of the State are apparent perhaps most in military institutions and thought (and indeed, the State is almost inconceivable absent the existence of war), in the concepts of exceptional law (states of emergency), and positively in architecture, systems of health, the police in general and urban and national planning, but still the nature of the State is also removed from these, and most profoundly cannot be located anywhere. As one of our friends was fond of saying, “The State is that thing which is behind your head.”

One of the key questions — arguably the key question — is from where and when did the State first emerge. Our historical research, and political orientation, centres on the proposal, which is Nietzsche’s, that the State does not emerge gradually, but rather arrives “fully armed” and “like lightning.” In this sense, the question of the State opens up not only the question of the present, but the possibility of an erased past that preceded its existence. We are pursuing this in a complementary research orientation centred on the concept of “The Field.”